The 1932 sale catalogue describes a 'composition of numerous figures, including several well-known characters (Sir Walter Scott, James Valentine (sic), Alexander Nasmyth, etc.), all set out on an accompanying key'. Unfortunately the latter is lost, but many of the leading protagonists are identifiable and the picture remains an important record of the Scottish literary and artistic world.
James Hogg (1770-1835), the character whose life and poetry earned him the sobriquet of The Ettrick Shepherd, is on the extreme left, being toasted by a youthful figure who raises a shallow drinking cup known as a quaiche. The identity of this character is unclear. The suggestion that it is Professor John Wilson (1785-1854), author and moral philosopher, whose nom de plume was Christopher North, appears doubtful on grounds of age. An alternative suggestion is that he may be Scott's son, Walter, later Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Walter Scott, 2nd Bt. (1801-1847). The figure leaning forward next to Hogg is clearly Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), doyen of the group, while the younger man, standing, holding a pipe, appears to be Scott's son-in-law and biographer, John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854). Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), the artist who contributed so much to the native school of Scottish landscape painting, is shown at the end of the table - the older of the two men wearing tam-o'-shanters. James Ballantyne (1772-1833), the printer (who from the 1932 catalogue entry we assume to be depicted) was one of Scott's closest associates, and may be the man seated on Scott's left. His brother John Ballantyne is also likely to have been represented.
Born in Edinburgh in 1782, William Allan studied at the Trustees' Academy, his fellow pupil and friend being David Wilkie, whose influence is obvious in his work. In 1805 he left for St. Petersburg where he was well-regarded, learnt Russian, and travelled extensively. Returning to Edinburgh in 1814, it was several years before - with the encouragement and advice of Wilkie and Scott - Allan's focus for inspiration shifted from the exotic, oriental subjects with which he had gained his reputation, to Scottish history. As his first composition with literary connotations, the present picture is of considerable importance in the artist's development. Scott, whose poems and novels provided seemingly endless subject matter for artists, took a consistent interest in his career, describing him in 1819 to the Duke of Buccleuch as a 'man of real genius'. In 1826 Allan was appointed Master of the Trustees' Academy; he was elected A.R.A. in 1825 and R.A. in 1835. In the late 1820s, he travelled in Italy, Greece and Turkey, and in 1834 was in Spain and Morocco. Having become President of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1838 on the death of the portrait painter George Watson, and been knighted in 1842, Allan's last major excursion was back to Russia in 1844 when he executed several works for Tsar Nicholas I.